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Why Anti-Tech Is in Style — Literally

Rob Walker

For a while now, the tech world has been obsessed with “wearables” — smartwatches, body-monitoring wrist bands, Google Glass, and other devices that you can wear on your person to make technology more readily available. “Wearable tech,” it’s often called.

But some of the most interesting gadgetized accessories these days have an unusual twist: Their real function is to thwart or disabletechnology.

Call it the rise of wearable anti-tech.

These experiments, which range from the practical to the theatrical, all have one thing in common: They respond to the annoyances, incursions, and even threats of technology with clever technology jujitsu.

They represent the latest that technology has to offer to get rid of the latest that technology has to offer. 

A backlash you can wear?
One recent case in point: Focus Life Gear, a line of “garments to protect us from the storm of information,” as designer Kunihiko Morinaga put it. Made from special fabric, the clothing cuts off your cellphone’s connection whenever you wear it, so you can pay attention to human beings and other aspects of physical reality. 

Why Anti-Tech Is in Style — Literally

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While that’s an extreme example, accessories that effectively shut down mobile connectivity are one of the most popular manifestations of wearable anti-tech — and possibly the most symbolic.

In a recent column for CNN.com (and in his useful newsletter), writer Douglas Rushkoff cited a project called KillYourPhone, a project that guides you in fashioning your own phone pouch out of “shielding fleece,” which, like Focus Life Gear, disrupts your phone’s signal. Rushkoff put it in the context of hostility toward Google Glass and Facebook.

“Are we in the midst of a new kind of tech industry backlash?” Rushkoff wondered.

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KillYourPhone’s mastermind, artist Aram Bartholl, has overseen a couple of pouch-making workshops in Berlin and encourages others to host their own. “I would place these kind of projects in the field of hacking,” he told me via email. “I like the gesture of a simple pouch against high tech!”

If you prefer a ready-made phone killer, it turns out you have options. The rather charming Phonekerchief is threaded with silver fibers to block calls and texts, and embroidered with the announcement: “My Phone Is Off for You.” And Sarah van Sonsbeeck’s Faraday Bag, made of silver-plated polyester fabric (and produced in an edition of 100 for a gallery in Amsterdam), takes the form of a purse or tote.

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Or, for a product with a somewhat more serious demeanor, there’s OFF Pocket — a Kickstarter-backed phone case with a patented “metal-plated textiles” design that’s pitched as not just a distraction blocker, but also a “privacy accessory.”

OFF Pocket, then, is not just about warding off distracting texts. It’s about shielding a device from electronic surveillance — an idea that, as I’ve written before, is increasingly relevant in the post-Snowden era.

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Conspicuous privacy
OFF Pocket is one of several projects from artist and designer Adam Harvey that place anti-tech wearables into a different context: growing concerns about encroachments on personal privacy. He previously created an attention-getting line of “stealth wear” designed to foil drone surveillance. And his earlier CV Dazzle project involved a camouflage-like response to facial-recognition software.

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Stealth Wear by Adam Harvey.

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CV Dazzle by Adam Harvey.

Addressing such worries by way of new objects and head-turning aesthetics sounds counterintuitive. Harvey explained to me that he was drawn to this sort of work as a result of his earlier experience as a photographer.

“One day all of your party photos will be visually mined for information,” he said. Concerned with the implications of that epiphany, he shifted to the other side of the camera, focused on the “increasingly vulnerable human” being documented.

And he’s detected a similar shift in the culture. When he started experimenting with the use of hairstyle and makeup to foil face detection, many found the idea esoteric. Now he gets a steady stream of offers to run “pop-up salons” on this very theme.

Meanwhile, he described his own attitude as having shifted from “anti-tech” to something he considers more practical: “It’s about adapting to our new environment, an environment of mass surveillance and cyborg privilege.”

Thus, he stressed that while the various phone-blocker projects are conceptually similar, the technical details matter: Actual shielding strength varies according to design and materials, and OFF Pocket was developed as a distinctly practical, maximum-strength solution — not just a gesture.

A fair point, though I think the gestures matter, too. After all, few of us are going to wear a phone-blocker outfit, but all of us understand what it’s getting at conceptually.

The same is true of even more flamboyant wearable responses to the surveilled life. For instance: URME Surveillance, a mask derived from a 3D scan of artist Leo Selvaggio’s face, presumably serving as “surveillant data disinformation” by tricking face-recognition technology into believing that whoever is wearing the thing is Selvaggio.

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URME Surveillance

Tech vs. tech goes pop
Plenty of other examples express the same underlying sentiment — pushing back against intrusive or oppressive technologies with possibly impractical but undeniably cunning counter-technologies.

Sometimes the context is technologies of observations — as in designer James Bridle’s Surveillance Spaulder, an armor-inspired device that detects security cameras, or the CCTV-undermining CCD-Me-Not Umbrella

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CCD-Me-Not Umbrella

Sometimes it takes the form of a weapon in a more quotidian battle over technological control — as in the ridiculously appealing TV-B-Gone hoodie, which embeds a universal remote in a sweatshirt and uses conductive thread to turn a zipper into an off switch for irritating television sets. 

That one is from Becky Stern, who among other things is director of wearable electronics at the endlessly impressive DIY-tech site Adafruit.

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“As we lose agency over our devices (NSA spying, operating systems phoning home even in airplane mode, etc.), we’re seeing folks take DIY actions to reclaim ownership over their devices and privacy, sometimes as artistic and political statements too,” Stern told me.

“When you can’t trust your phone, but it becomes a necessary evil in your life, it makes a lot of sense that you’d want to have a way to take total control over it. This troubled relationship is very fertile ground for artists and hackers right now.”

Evidently that notion is spilling over into popular culture. That new, attention-grabbing video from hip-hop star M.I.A. is littered with tech objects — and with tech-skeptical language (“1984 is now,” “Yes We Scan,” and so on).

No wonder it works in a little wearable anti-tech, including a glimpse of a Pixelhead full-face mask, by Martin Backes — yet another response to a world where technology is a thing to be questioned, and possibly resisted, even as we embrace it.

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Pixelhead full-face mask, by Martin Backes.

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Screen grab from M.I.A. & The Partysquad’s “Double Bubble Trouble” video.

“Fighting tech with tech,” Rushkoff pointed out to me when I asked him for his take on this seeming contradiction, is “really a form of culture jamming,” referring to the long-standing media activist practice of turning systems against themselves.

Rushkoff’s recent book Present Shock addresses contemporary ambivalence about technology (read my earlier Q&A with him about that here), so he’s hardly surprised by this rash of tech-questioning tech projects.

“There’s a delight in having a really simple piece of technology that undoes really complicated, expensive stuff,” he told me.

It makes perfect sense, in other words, that anti-tech might be … in fashion.

Write to me at rwalkeryn@yahoo.com or find me on Twitter, @notrobwalkerRSS lover? Paste this URL into your reader of choice: https://www.yahoo.com/tech/author/rob-walker/rss.